Orion Ensemble unveils a new work with dance to the fore

Tue Mar 01, 2011 at 9:01 am

By Gerald Fisher

The Orion Ensemble premiered Victoria Bond’s “Instruments of Revelation” Sunday night in Evanston.

The Orion Ensemble has been a Chicago mainstay for eighteen years now, and their current program shows them at their eclectic best, with works ranging from the standard to the new and unknown. A solid performance of Schubert’s monumental Piano Trio, D. 929, formed the anchor to their concert Sunday evening, but the first half of the program was the more stimulating in its unfamiliarity.

Reszó Kókai (1906 -1962) is a Hungarian composer largely unknown in this country, but, judging from his Four Hungarian Dances for clarinet, well worth seeking out. He was a pupil of Kodály, and his teacher’s style is manifest in this work, performed with superb virtuosity by clarinetist Kathryn Pirtle. Based on folk motifs, it sounds like Háry János filtered through Petrushka, with an ethnic swagger modified by a classical refinement. Pirtle’s clarinet sounded substantial and rich in the reverberant acoustic of the Music Institute’s space at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.

The novelty of the evening was Victoria Bond’s Instruments of Revelation, a performance piece written for the Orion in collaboration with Ballet Chicago’s David Duell. The three sections, each based on a figure from the Tarot, were performed onstage by costumed soloists: The Magician (Julian Arthur Nelson) wore a conical hat, the High Priestess (Rachel Seeholzer) a glittery red dress, and the Fool (William Miglino) a black-and-white body suit.

Presentations of this kind are always open to one central question: is this a ballet where the dancers are preeminent or is the dance a distraction from the music? Ideally the parts should support each other in a unified piece.

To some extent this was the case, with Bond’s jumpy virtuosic scoring being replicated or imitated by the dancers. But for all the music’s elements, it was often difficult to concentrate on it with so much going on visually. Scored for Orion’s unique musical makeup—clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano—Bond’s work was full of variety and provided a nice counterpoint to the three sections as they unfolded wittily and with high energy.

The Schubert Trio, D. 929 is such an icon of the chamber repertoire that it must be hard for a musician to find anything new to say about the music. Sunday evening’s performance was top-notch, however, and offered plenty of fine solo work, particularly from cellist Judy Stone and pianist Diana Schmück, whose technical mastery underpinned most of the concert.

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. March 6 at Fox Valley Presbyterian Church in Geneva and 7:30 p.m. March 9 at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall. orionensemble.org

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